[This was written in mid’22, and I had posted it as a Notion page. Now consolidating all of these reviews posted elsewhere into this site.]

Four Thousand Weeks is one of those self-help books that transcend its genre to become something more (Atomic Habits by James Clear is one another). In style and in spirit it reminded me of the writings of Alain de Botton, which occupy the intersection of self-help and philosophy.

TLDR of the book is that life is short, absurdly short (the title of the book is our life span essentially). You can’t do everything in this brief life. So choose, and what you choose becomes the richer and more meaningful because you have rejected many alternatives, and enjoy it. Productivity is not so much trying to do x work in y hours, and it will always spill over, but more about what you should work on.

Here is my chapter-wise summary of the book

Introduction Chapter: In the long run, we’re all dead

Life is short. Roughly, four thousand weeks long. We try to optimise the limited time we have, packed with hundreds of things to do. Yet, the more we try to do, the more anxious & busier we get, e.g., the more e-mails we answer, more emails come back at us. We need to realize that we will never have everything under control. Productivity is a trap. We barely get around to do the right things. We systematically spend our time doing other things instead.

Chapter – 1: The limit embracing life

When you are faced with lots of demands or choices for your time, instead of trying to force fit so many demands by becoming hyper-efficient, ask yourself if all the demands or choices are worth exploring? Embrace finitude or adopt a limit embracing attitude, where you want to have the time for all that you want to do. Missing out on something is what makes our choice meaningful.

Chapter – 2: The efficiency trap

When you try to fit as much as you can in your life,

  1. a) You end up with more to do.
  2. b) You end up spending more of your time on less meaningful things.

This is the efficiency trap, if you have an attitude that you can fit everything in, then you don’t question each activity as to whether it’s a meaningful use of your time. Once you understand that you are likely to miss out on 90% of what the world has got to offer. Then you can choose to focus on and enjoy that 10% that you are trying for.

Chapter – 3: Facing finitude

Martin Heidegger, a philosopher, says our finitude or our limited time on earth is what defines us. It also means that, any choice or possibility, rules out others. For there is finite time and you can’t explore limitless options.

Finite life = limited possibility, but this is what makes these choices meaningful & enjoyable. If we had unlimited choices or repetitions, then each of them wouldn’t be enjoyable. The fact that you could have chosen a different option, bestows a meaning or the choice you made; this is the joy of missing out.

Chapter – 4: Becoming a better procrastinator

The real problem of time management is that there are often too many big priorities to be completed (‘rocks’ in the famous story of rocks, pebbles, sands) that feel as important. There are 3 broad ways to overcome these :

  1. Schedule activities with yourself & block time for key items (prioritise).
  2. Limit your Work In Progress to three things ideally; put a hard upper limit on the items you will work on that day (if it’s a big project or item then break it into tasks & that task can be one of those 3 items you will work on that day)
  3. Resist middling priorities; living life to fullest requires settling. If you keep striving for everything you will succeed in none. You need to forego the rewards of other choices to meaningfully focus on one and succeed in that.

Chapter – 5: The watermelon problem

No notes.

Chapter – 6: The intimate interruptor

When you focus on the unpleasant activities that you are doing or have to do, the resistance towards experiencing it or the discomfort of doing it disappears. Distractions are what we do to avoid discomfort from the guilt, this arises from finitude, because we are focusing on one item & giving up on others.

Distractions are the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation. Distraction can only be removed by facing the discomfort of the experience, by turning your attention to the reality of the situation or experience.

Chapter – 7: We never really have time

No notes.

Chapter – 8: You are here

We are so obsessed to make the present count, towards a desired future state, that we barely experience or live consciously in the present. Yet the present is finite & many of the activities we undertake in the present are the ones that we will do for the last time (we will never do them again). We spend our finite present obsessed with using it for the future, & this future chasing mindset makes it difficult to enjoy the present & even saps the present of meaning.

Chapter – 9: Rediscovering rest

When our relationship with time is entirely instrumental, i.e., towards achieving some future activity, then the present starts to lose meaning. Even our leisure activities seem chosen for some other reason, & not because we enjoy doing it for its own sake.

We do not have enough atelic (purposeless) activities: rather even our leisure is full of telic activities. Historically purposeless leisure or leisure for its own sake was seen as the highest virtue. Ancient cultures took pains to build it into their structures like the sabbath. The only way to truly enjoy your leisure is when you spend it wastefully for the sake of the experience alone, which will benefit us in the future & lead to personal growth.

Chapter – 10: The impatience spiral

No notes.

Chapter – 11: Staying on the bus

In a world obsessed with hurry, the ability to resist it & instead be patient & let things take the time it should, is a way to get a grip on the world, & to derive satisfaction from the doing itself.

There are 3 broad principles for being patient:

  1. Develop a taste for having problems & enjoy the facing of problems. The state of not having problems will never arise then.
  2. Embrace radical incrementalism: make your desired activity, say writing, a smaller but a surer part of your workday so that you can keep doing it daily. Be willing to stop when your time is up.
  3. Originality lies on the far side of unoriginality (or pay your dues). There is a certain learning/understanding that only comes when you steep yourself into a craft, tradition & its fundamentals.

Chapter – 12: The loneliness of the digital moment

The more we get control over our schedules & become free to structure it the way we want, the more uncoordinated it becomes from the schedules of our friends & family. Individual freedom trades off against desynchronisation of the society.

There are very few collective projects outside of our workplace. Freedom to set our own schedules conflicts with another freedom namely, that of engaging with others as a collaborative endeavour. Don’t hold all your time for yourself, it can be too much your own!

Chapter – 13: Cosmic insignificance therapy

No notes.

Chapter – 14: The human disease

The sooner you can rid yourself of the illusion that we can master time (as if it is something outside ourselves, when in fact we are time & we are the moments), the faster you will get to have some purchase on life, when you get to spend your finite time focused on a few things that matter. Accept the inevitable, if you have too much to do you will never be able to complete. Freedom ensues; you can get on with life & get on to live in the moment.

Appendix: 10 Tools for embracing your finitude

  1. Adopt a fixed volume approach to productivity:
  2. Do X things for Y hours & then stop, don’t expand Y hours; you will do more in these Y hours as a result.
  3. Limit your Work In Progress.
  4. Keep a large open list but small fixed Work in Process list, where you can’t add a new item till one of them is closed.
  5. Serialise; finish one item before taking up the next.
  6. Decide on the don’ts, what you won’t spend energies on or where you will do the bare minimum.
  7. Seek out novelty in the mundane.
  8. Be a researcher in relationships, be curious and discover who the other person is.
  9. Practice instantaneous generosity.
  10. Practice doing nothing.